Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Logjam as mourning wood

Logjam is the latest in my gay sexuality series -- a short small game about a middle aged lumberjack daddy processing wood and other hard things. It's about forestry, masculinity, and history, but on a surface level it's a simple work simulator with a burly stripper and occasional twists.

CONTENT WARNING: Some of the screenshots have some CG nudity in them. It is "NSFW".

SPOILER WARNING: This post spoils what happens in the game. If you care about that, then you should play it first.

As with my previous gay games, the controls are simple: you move the mouse up to raise the axe, and then move the mouse down (or click) to chop, and that's pretty much it. I don't even use left or right input.

However, masterful chopping requires a bit of timing. Here I use a classic gamey-style back-and-forth aiming meter where you have to click at the right time, yet there's a delay between your input and the end of the animation. It's a sliver of Dark Souls meant to evoke the mastery of wood chopping technique: less about strength, and more about finesse and preparation.

I spent time animating the chopping feel, calibrating the hand movements and squatting posture to demonstrate good axecraft. This virtual forester is an experienced professional. I try not to repeat design aspects from project to project, so this is the opposite feel of the wobbly fumblecore masculinity in Hard Lads

Yet in other ways, the game is quite similar to Hard Lads: you repeat the same action over and over across several sessions. 

This time I decided to make it more gamey. I imply progression more directly with numbers on-screen, little "+1" point floaters and an in-game clock ticking away at one IRL minute = one in-game hour. (Across an 8 hour in-game work day, that's about 8 IRL minutes per play session.)

The first part of each work day is fairly, um, straight. You chop wood while fully clothed with full safety equipment. I expect my audience to have seen screenshots already, so when I prolong this straight stage for a whole IRL minute, it should feel like a mild agony. Then, finally, he takes off some clothes... Well, his helmet. Just his helmet. And then you continue to chop wood for another whole IRL minute.

We expect virtual sex to be frictionless. But mundane boredom is important to sell the workplace fantasy -- working late at the office, doing a repetitive task alone. Kinky mischief relies on a premise of relative drudgery.

But I don't think wood chopping is drudgery. In fact a little while ago I chopped some wood for the first time, a powerful experience which inspired this game.

The tactility and weight surprised me. Decades of video games had taught me that axes were slashing-type cutting-type weapons, yet I learned that sectioning and splitting wood is about positioning your body to harness weight and gravity. An axe is less like a knife and more like a sharp hammer. And this may sound obvious to my most butch readers, but I discovered that different types of wood feel very different to cut. I mean, I knew this intellectually, but I hadn't really felt it until I faced this one branch that just seemed invincible. You get a feel for it, this erotic dance of sensing hardness.

Previously I spoke about "queer carpentry", making things to help queer people be queer. Despite the carpentry metaphor I hadn't quite reckoned with wood as a material. 

How do we treat wood, what do we put into it? Heat, pressure, anti-fungal chemicals, sure, but we also apply a heavy varnish made of ideas and politics too.

"American Progress" (1872) by John Gast

In the 2020 book The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization, author Roland Ennos unpacks two important aspects of wood: (1) it is the oldest building material yet still in common use today, and (2) it was humankind's main fuel source until coal and oil. Wood is strong when it dries out and hardens, we can shape it and transport it, and it's also convenient to burn for cooking, heat, and light industry. The Stone Age is a misnomer! More accurately we lived in a "Wood Age" for thousands of years.

US historian Daniel Immerwahr applies the Wood Age lens to the mythical American frontier. In his 2022 lecture "Axecraft: Settler Colonialism and Wood", he talks about how colonists used North America's vast forests ("the Saudi Arabia of wood") to domesticate the land with vast wooden cities, housing, and infrastructure. (“The axe leaps!... The shapes arise!” - Song of the Broad-Axe, Walt Whitman) Settlers frequently burned Native American towns and homes, yet when "Great Fires" shaped cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington DC, the white settler sympathy rarely extended to the Native peoples they annihilated by arson.

The early United States and its history of settler colonialism is strongly rooted in the chopping and burning of wood. Wood was the medium for processing both trees and indigenous lands into resources.

old drawing of a young Abraham Lincoln splitting wood for fences, from Immerwahr's talk

I need to reflect the ideological dimension of wood. So this is why I occasionally task the player with splitting something that isn't just a log. 

Sometimes it's a sandwich or a pie, American food items that are frequently split and sectioned. Sometimes it's an adorable puppy or an innocent deer, things that feel transgressive and funny to chop. Sometimes it's an axe, chopping the means of chopping for a cute meta twist. 

While chopping these objects in a forest is strange, I think it's important that this selection of food, animals, and tools are all vaguely related to the American frontier theme and aren't completely random. That's what foreshadows the overtly political objects like a bald eagle. 

(Fun facts from this 2022 history of the bald eagle: real-life bald eagles are really mean and unpleasant, and for decades settlers shot them on sight. Audubon famously hated bald eagles and thought they were cowardly thieves. Hmm.)

(About my splitting tech: I didn't manually model pre-split meshes, it's all dynamic via shader. When the axe animation reaches 100%, I set a clipping plane (by Ronja) on the target object, then duplicate it with a reversed clipping plane. This creates two halves, and I apply opposite physics forces on both to push them apart. You can see a bug in this approach in the GIF above, where the eagle halves still have full shadows.)

These non-wood objects makes crucial double use of the aiming mechanic. 

Normally you want to chop within the central critical hotspot for maximum points, but what if it's something you don't want to chop? While I imagine many players will gleefully embrace the opportunity to chop a bald eagle in half, hopefully they also briefly contemplate the alternative. Like if it's an adorable puppy, should you miss on purpose, saving the puppy but earning +0 points and wasting precious time in your workday? I hope players realize timing a deliberate miss can be as hard as a crit (+3 points). Concentrated failure, or what the gays call "camp", is its own skill. The only thing worse than failing is failing to fail. Mediocrity earns you +1 point.

All the points you get from chopping gradually accumulate in a wood pile (day 1) and a log cabin (day 2) in the background. The log cabin has obvious historical significance but I think it also symbolizes the new millennial American Dream of 2020: to leave a cramped apartment and move upstate into a cute eco-friendly off-grid tiny house where you work from home. Of course the exact shape of the cabin varies with your politics. Maybe you're dreaming of a queer vegan plant mom co-op, or maybe it's a concrete bunker where you hoard a 5 year supply of rations and ammunition, but either way there's a renewed collective fantasy of living and surviving in our imagined sense of nature.

There's at least one problem with this wild utopia: most of us don't know how to do any of it. Dumb city millennials like me have never even held an axe before, though really that's just the beginning. We have to learn how to chop wood, but we also have to learn how to live. 

Fortunately these days you can learn anything by watching videos on your phone. And it turns out you learn even more if the teacher is hot.

John Plant of Primitive Technology (left), Thoren Bradley (center), Dracon Blue censored (right)

The pre-industrial construction YouTube channel Primitive Technology has more than 10 million subscribers ("a Walden for the YouTube Age", gushed The Paris Review) and it's about hanging out with a fit shirtless dude building a hut with a rock. Every viewer wishes they could touch his rock hard adze.

But if you want to pretend you're learning forestry skills AND you're impatiently horny, go for the shameless woodland beefcake of TikTok lumberjacks like Thoren Bradley. In between his shirtless thirst trap videos, he records wood chopping how-to videos with tips and advice, thus providing plausible deniability for straight men to follow him.

Then after all that educational edging, we finish off with OnlyFans dudes like Dracon Blue (NSFW) who struck gay porn gold by chopping wood while staying inexplicably erect. The wanton OSHA violations strengthen his allure.

A "log jam" is a "crowded mass of logs blocking a river" or a "situation that seems irresolvable." But we can also understand it erotically as jam from a log -- a sticky substance oozing out of a long hard thing.

Morning wood is a phenomenon where you wake up with an erection. I earn my pun by implementing a time of day system, where it gradually gets sunnier and hotter as play progresses. So at the start of the  session it's 9:00 AM in the morning and it's a bit nippy, so he's wearing all of his clothes. As the day gets hotter, he takes off more of his clothes.

I thought it would be funny for the player to have zero control over their character's nudity. He will undress as his own pace. He's union! If he's not stripping fast enough for you, well, tough! (In this way it's also a gesture toward sex workers' rights.) He's happy to take off his clothes but it will be on his terms in response to his environment. As the sun sets, it gets colder, so he'll put on his clothes again, too bad.

There's some variation to how time / heat / environment interact with nudity. Sometimes during his lunch break he'll masturbate, albeit a bit uselessly with 0% chance of climax. (Perhaps a logjam is also when you're not feeling up for it.) Other times, when he takes off his clothes, he'll be inexplicably erect, as a nod to Dracon Blue. 

On Day 3, instead of building a log pile or log cabin, your actions build a wildfire that engulfs the entire scene. This hellish inferno has the plus side of making him stay naked, a gay sex climate crisis twist on Aesop's The North Wind and the Sun. ("Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.") Now you get more nudity, and all you had to do was burn the entire world. (This is fine.)

Log cabin masculinity is a powerful gender performance but relies on individualism. Being alone means you can only have sex with yourself. This can be liberating in a sense -- see Casey Frey's popular viral video where he performs a sexy wood-chopping shirtless dance duet with himself. (As one commentator states, "God the sexual tension between him and himself is unbearable.") 

But what if sex with yourself didn't feel particularly liberating? What if, uh, you don't like yourself? What if America doesn't like itself? 

I argue that sexy lumberjacking is about stoking / stroking the Wood Age, a nostalgic gesture to split off some aspect of Americanness that we can still tolerate. But this too is rotten wood.

So on the final ending day 4, the entire landscape has been rendered a charred wasteland. Sure enough, the player has burned down the world. There is nothing left to chop, nothing more to work towards. 

At noon, the lumberjack sits on the stump to masturbate ineffectually like before -- except this time the game will seem to glitch out: both the chopper and the sitter are active at the same time, thus enabling the player character to chop the last thing remaining in this world: himself. With this last chop, he walks off the job and the game ends.

I made Logjam in a whirlwind 2 weeks, after getting frustrated with my "creative blockage" / inability to finish three previous projects. In this personal way, Logjam was about me returning to the smaller games I made like Succulent and Stick Shift, modest things I was able to finish and release. A lot of it was about practicing how to scope small and work fast in a formal way. 

Conceptually it also shares the gestural focus of Hard Lads (I basically never move the camera) as well as the environmentalist domain of We Dwell in Possibility

While those are mostly optimistic games, Logjam has a more ambiguous ending. The hopeless apocalyptic tone surprised me even while I was making it. I paired it with the music track "By The River" by Sin City, a local New Zealand based country soul duo -- and if the player times it right, the screen fades to black just as the singer croons, "I guess I'll just go back home."

When the lumberjack walks away for the final time, what does it mean? Was it brave to chop himself and go do something else, or was it a sad metaphor for giving up? He doesn't know, but he had to do it anyway.